Preparing Your Writing Surface

I really appreciate the attention and thank yous that I have been getting for writing this series for helping calligraphers take the next step in what I hope is their life long love affair with doing calligraphy.  I asked what new and relatively new scribes wanted to learn how to do in a few different facebook discussion groups.  One answer that kept coming up was how to properly prepare different writing surfaces.  So today, I will be tackling that subject.

Interestingly preparing your writing surfaces is just attempting to do a couple of things.  1 – Have a smooth surface to write one.  2 – Have a “clean” surface to write on.

Calligraphy is pretty writing.  As we go through our lives every day we see writing done on everything from high tech plastics to stone that might be older than the country we live in to electronic displays (including our computers).  Calligraphy can be written using paint, chisels, minerals, blood, precious metals, other metals and oh yes, ink.  Today, I will be focusing on preparing paper, pergamenata and parchment surfaces for use with ink and other writing fluids.  The basic principle is the same though regardless of the surface you are writing on.  It needs to be reasonably smooth and it needs to be reasonably clean for the calligraphy to work and to stay.

First things first.  The key to having a good writing surface is to keep it clean.  So store your writing surfaces in a way that will keep them protected and I suggest out of direct sunlight.  The next thing to do is when you getting ready to do calligraphy wash you hands with mild soap and water.  Liquid or bar soap is just fine, but don’t use harsh or abrasive soaps if you can avoid it.  The first   Every single time, for practice, for fun or for projects, wash your hands before you get started.  This habit can’t be overdone.  From the perspective of your writing surface you have dirty and problematic hands.  Your hands exude oils, some of which are acidic, and when the oils get on your writing surface they can really cause problems.

Another optional step to further protect the writing surface one can wear thin cotton gloves on both hands.  For me, the glove on my writing hand has the thumb and pointy finger cut off.  The middle finger of the glove is cut off to the second knuckle from the tip.  My non-writing hand wears a fully intact cotton glove most of the time as well.  This keeps me from putting hand oils onto my writing surface over time.

Materials and Tools

Pounce – Pounce is a much discussed and often argued over material.  In the broadest of terms and for our purposes today, pounce is a material made up of small particles used to prepare a flexible writing surface such as paper, pergamenta and parchment.  What are the ingredients of pounce?  Well, that is what a lot of the argument centers on.  The three most commonly discussed materials in my experience are forms of calcium carbonate – usually chalk or cuttlefish bone – pumice powder and gum sandarac.

Cuttlefish bone is made up primarily of calcium carbonate, which is what chalk is made of.  Also many eggshells are primarily composed of calcium carbonate.

Cuttlefish bone and ground up cuttlefish bone.

Cuttlefish bone and ground up cuttlefish bone.

I get my cuttlefish bone from the local pet supply place.  It can be a grocery store, or a dedicated pet supply store.  It is usually in the parakeet and bird supply area.  You will need to crush it up.  I use a mortar and pestle for that.

Mortar and Pestle

Mortar and Pestle

When possible do not use the same mortar and pestle you would use to break up oak galls.  Also please do not use a mortar and pestle you use to grind up anything that will go into your food.

There are commercial pounce applicators.  This one used chalk

Commercial chalk pounce

Commercial chalk pounce

Pumice powder was also used.  Pumice is a rough volcanic stone.  Thankfully you can purchase it already powdered.

Find powdered pumice

Find powdered pumice

My favorite pounce material is gum sandarac.  In the picture below we see raw sandarac “tears” and a pounce bag of Sandarac.

Gum Sandarac

Gum Sandarac

Gum Sandarac is a tree resin from a tree called Arar or Sitcus tree.  It is also used as a varnish and subtle, slightly sweet smelling incense.  Put a small amount into a square of muslin (shown above) or linen patch of cloth  and then tie it up like a bag.  No need to grind up the sandarac just bag up the tears and it will rub together to produce the powder we are after.

Writing Surface

Your writing surface should be very smooth.  With paper and pergamenta this is the natural state of the writing surface.  You shouldn’t need to do anything to smooth the surface under normal circumstances.  Parchment and velum on the other hand sometimes need sanding.  You can use a smooth pumice stone or other smoothing tool such as sandpaper to smooth out your parchment.  I recommend a pumice stone, sandpaper or other ‘sander” that is no less than 400 grit.  In the USA we measure sandpaper as particles of sand per square inch.  So 400 means 400 grains of sand per square inch.  The higher the number the finer the grit and eventually the smoother the finish of what you are sanding.  I know people who will sand down parchment and velum down to 1,000 grit which is a mirror like finish, personally I find that between 400 and 800 grit is sufficient for me.

Once your writing surface is smooth enough I find it best to pounce your surface.  Find what works best for you and your writing style, the writing surface and the ink or writing fluid you are using.  For me, this is generally gum sandarac.  The application of all of these has the same end goal.  A very thin layer over the writing surface of the pounce material.  This can be done in many different ways.

You can simply sprinkle a powdered form over the surface and spread it around.  Simply sprinkle the material and then use something light and easy, I suggest a feather set aside for the material, over the writing surface.

You can use an applicator to put the powder on the surface and spread it around.  Applicators can be shakers, as seen in the commercial pumice which also has a handy felt spreader.  They can also be the muslin and linen bags which are also used to spread the pounce.  In either case use a “tap and swish” or “tap and drag” movement.  Tap the applicator on the surface gently (or shake it out gently) and then swish or drag the applicator over the writing surface until the entire writing area is covered.

Then put your writing surface up on its edge and from behind tap the back of the writing surface several times in several places to remove any excess powder that can clog your pen or cause other problems.

Congratulations your writing surface is prepared and ready to go.

8 responses to “Preparing Your Writing Surface

    • It has been my experience that pounce is wise to use regardless of how smooth the parchment may be.

      Why you are using the pounce is an important determination to make. If you are pouncing your parchment to soak up fats and oils from the parchment how smooth or how rough it is should be irrelevant. I would also recommend using chalk (Calcium Carbonate) or powdered gypsum (Calcium Sulfate).

      If you are using pounce to prepare the writing area for writing the surface should always be as smooth as possible. I like to get my writing surface to about 1000 grit sandpaper smooth. Very smooth. A rough surface for writing on parchment is unwise. Experiments I’ve done have shown that makign the surface rough uses up more ink, causes more “spidering” and results in an inferior end product. Always go the smoothest you can get.

      The pounce I recommend for this is gum sandarac, or sandarac tears powder. This pounce has an entirely different job than the chalk will have. Though people will use chalk or a chalk mixed with sandarac for this I prefer gum sandarac. Gum sandarac is applied by tapping a linen bag of sandarac tears and then swiping it across the writing suface. Then turn the writing surface on its edge and tape the opposite side of the writing surface. This knocke off the larger grains and excess powder.

      The remaining powder is very fine, not gritty and you probably won’t feel it at all with your pen. Gum sandarac pounce in this usage is for helping the ink stay put and creating crisp clean lines for drawing lines or drawing your letters. And I pounce my writing surfaces, including very smooth parchment with gum sandarac every single time I am doing a finished project. The results are just so much better.

      • Thanks so much! I have a really high quality sheet that is already smooth, but tests on the scraps I’ve cut from the edge of the sheet (it shipped over sized) suggest that the ink may want to bead slightly… which is very weird, given that it doesn’t look or feel oily at all. I just bought 600 grit sandpaper to take care of smoothing it further, just in case, and then gum sandarac to pounce. Thanks again!

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  3. To keep my hand oils off of my writing surface I take a white ankle sock and cut the toe off ( for my fingers) and then cut a small hole for my thumb, and slip the sock over my writing hand.


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